Despite CES 2008 being all about brand new displays and TVs, we got some of the most interesting information at the show from Intel, about microprocessors.

All smartphones, including the iPhone, suffer from poor performance.  These devices all run highly integrated System on a Chip (SoC) designs, where power consumption matters first and foremost, with performance being a distant second consideration.  Software compatibility is also a major concern, as the entire world of mobile and smart phones run on a tremendous number of incompatible platforms.  A single software application or game must be at least recompiled if not re-written for virtually every single device it's going to go on. 

In stark contrast to all of this is the PC; performance is job number one, and only recently has power consumption even begun to factor into the equation.  Software compatibility is also ensured thanks to the fact that the x86 instruction set is the de-facto standard in the PC industry. 

The problem is that PC system architectures don't translate well into small, ultra low power devices like smartphones.  What's necessary is a ground-up design, aimed specifically at those markets.  Intel realized this early on in the evolution of mobile processors. In order to make a truly mobile PC, Intel could not simply repackage a desktop/server CPU, it needed something specifically designed for the mobile market.  Thus the first Centrino platform was born, and now five years later, we're dealing with a very mature platform.

The need for even more powerful, even more mobile devices is now upon us.  The demands we have on our smartphones are ever increasing, we want the functionality of a notebook, but in something the size of an iPhone.  It's time for another revolutionary change, akin to what Centrino was for notebooks.  Intel learned its lesson with Centrino, which became a very successful brand for the company.  Now Intel hopes to go above and beyond what Centrino ever was, for ultra mobile devices.

It all started with devices like the Portable Media Center and the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC), devices designed to bring certain features of your PC with you on the go, without the bulk of a notebook.  The interface was also supposed to be mobile optimized; just as Microsoft discovered with Media Center and as Intel did with Centrino, in order to make an ultra mobile device work, it could not simply use the same interface as a desktop OS - it needed something new and specialized. 

Unfortunately, these devices failed miserably.  They were either too big, too expensive, too slow or too impractical to use.  The reasons for their failure were simple: the hardware wasn't fast enough and the software was too slow.  UMPCs were the perfect example; most of them run Vista, but they don't have the hardware to run it fast enough to be usable and since they use components designed for much larger notebooks, battery life suffers greatly.  The level of integration on the silicon side is also a problem; these UMPCs are far too big. 

Apple realized these problems early on, and didn't jump on the UMPC bandwagon.  Instead, it created a mobile-optimized OS and stuck it on a smartphone.  The end result was that the iPhone was born with the most elegant smartphone interface onthe market.  However, Apple used mostly off the shelf components for the iPhone, so despite its speedy interface, the phone itself could still benefit from a faster processor.  The iPhone is also Apple's only non-x86 product in its current lineup, meaning that software portability between the iPhone/iPod, the Apple TV and its Macs isn't ideal.

Intel came to its senses around the same time as Apple, but instead of building a killer device with the components available on the market today, Intel set out to do for ultra mobile devices what it did for notebooks with Centrino.  The platform is codenamed Menlow, and we finally have more details on it. 

Meet Menlow
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  • TA152H - Thursday, January 10, 2008 - link

    Anand,

    Do you have any idea what this processor is in terms of the architecture? I still have not read anything about whether, for example, it's decoupled, it's superscalar, it's superpipeline, and if it is superscalar, is it out of order, etc ...

    Is Intel just not releasing any of this information yet? I guess one clue is that they say it will run at the same clock speeds and performance level as the Pentium M did, so I guess it would almost have to be superscalar, and probably even out of order. But then, why make a new processor from scratch if it's almost the same as the Pentium M. It's kind of confusing. Maybe they reached the same goal by doing something different, that uses less power. For example, maybe it's a shorter pipelined beast, which would increase IPC and lower clock speed and make it smaller and less power hungry. Maybe it's not decoupled, which would save some stages, and some transistors.

    I hope Intel will release more information on it. It's would be really interesting to see how they went with it. I'd like to see AMD release a K6 derivative as a mobile chip instead of something off the K7/K8 core. It might not reach the same clock speeds, but I think it had excellent power use characteristics and had relatively high IPC (especially the K6-III).
    Reply
  • IntelUser2000 - Thursday, January 10, 2008 - link

    ISSCC 2008 preview: "A 47M transistor, 25mm2, sub-2W IA processor designed for mobile internet devices…It features a 2-issue, in-order pipeline with 32KB iL1 and 24KB dL1 caches, integer and floating point execution units, x86 front end, a 512KB L2 cache and a 533MT/s front-side bus. The design is manufactured in 9M 45nm High-k metal-gate CMOS and housed in a 441-ball µFCBGA package."

    VLSI Seminar(http://dropzone.tamu.edu/VLSISeminars)">http://dropzone.tamu.edu/VLSISeminars): "This presentation will describe a low power Intel(r) Architecture (IA) processor specifically designed for Ultra-Mobile PCs where average power consumed is in the order of a few hundred mW with performance similar to mainstream Ultra-Mobile PCs. The design consists of an in-order pipeline capable of issuing 2 instructions per cycle supporting 2 threads, 32KB instruction and 24KB data L1 caches, independent integer and floating point execution units, x86 front end execution unit, a 512KB L2 cache and a 533 MT/s dual-mode (GTL and CMOS) front-side-bus (FSB). The design contains 47M transistors in a die size under 25 mm2 manufactured in a 9-metal 45nm CMOS process with optimized transistors for low leakage packaged in a Halide-Free 441 ball, 14X13 mm uFCBGA. Thermal Design Power (TDP) consumption is measured at 2W using a synthetic power-virus test at a frequency of 2GHz."

    Unlikely it'll be Pentium M range. It's supposed to have Hyper-threading and talks about high throughput oriented processor. The CPU performance is something like 800MHz Dothan-512 at single thread and 40-50% faster with multi-thread, and that's when its clocked at 1.8GHz.
    Reply
  • TA152H - Friday, January 11, 2008 - link

    Thanks for the information.

    I agree, it will be impossible for it to have the same IPC capability as the Pentium M. I'm not sure why Intel is saying that. It does look a little more formidable than the VIA chips though. It will be interesting to see what VIA does to counter them.

    It's kind of interesting how the computer industry constantly goes in circles. The CGA and MDA adapters (and later EGA) were digital output, VGA and later were analog, now we're back to digital. Superscalar processors, particularly the Pentium, were in order, then went out of order, and now we're seeing the POWER, Itanium and this chip going back to being in order. Before it was the processor that did the video processing, and the cards were just dumb frame buffers. Now, they are talking about moving the video processor back into the CPU.

    I just hope the cassette tape doesn't come back as a means of storage. CLOAD. Ugggh!
    Reply
  • IntelUser2000 - Thursday, January 10, 2008 - link

    Anyways, it'll be an upgrade for the UMPCs anyway with its greater multi-threading performance(somewhat possible single thread??) over the current A110 CPU that's used on the UMPCs.

    I don't get Moorestown though, why push x86 on non-Windows platform?? WTF Intel!!
    Reply
  • Cali3350 - Wednesday, January 09, 2008 - link

    Considering how much we've been hearing about this platform for the last year or so i must say it does seem rather disappointing. I was led to believe this would the next wave of real portable devices, something Apple and the like would adopt willingly very early. I must say i don't see that occurring from this article.

    Ofcourse this is just a quick article from CES, maybe things are different when you really get up close and personal with it.
    Reply
  • hnhunt66 - Wednesday, January 09, 2008 - link

    the eventual migration of many of these features like web browsing and the like to devices other than the main number cruncher in the house (the pc or mac) has been a couple of years away for about a decade. The cost effectiveness of reusing code across multiple platforms is the main reason that Intel is more than likely on a good path here. The technically inclined and those young enough for this to be natural still like the cheep sometimes at the expense of elegance. The rest of the world just wants it to be plug and play this is achieved at low costs by not having to write new code or debug recompiles for every device. Under estimating the value of the x86 architecture is risky at best, I was reading about its demise in the 80's. Reply
  • Freddo - Wednesday, January 09, 2008 - link

    I would love to see a Menlow notebook (not UMPC). Something like the Eee PC from ASUS, but with some noticeably changes.

    Bluetooth support is a must. HDMI would be very nice too, so you can hook it into the TV for a larger screen now and then. Maybe even use it as a HTPC with an external optic drive thru the USB.

    It would be a perfect nice little energy-efficient notebook :)
    Reply
  • psychobriggsy - Wednesday, January 09, 2008 - link

    Intel tries to catch up to where ARM has been for years. The iPhone chip has the CPU, GPU, RAM, and loads more just on the CPU package (about the size of Silverthorne). Apple won't take over markets by waiting 3 years to get where they can be with ARM today.

    Intel are hoping for 2x the iPhone processing power ... a year after the iPhone came out. And that's using a 620MHz ARM11 based core. If Intel do try, Samsung will come out with an ARM Cortex multi-core fully integrated 3G phone on a single piece of silicon with RAM and flash stacked into just the space of the Intel CPU.

    Look at the iPhone motherboard. There's no contest as to which architecture is going to get picked. Even in 2010 Intel will have 3 large (for a phone) chips - CPU, I/O and RAM, and that's before you get any phone related circuitry and storage.

    Apple are perfectly happy with using ARM in their iPods and iPhones. They've got 15 years of ARM experience in-house. ARM are actually really making moves in terms of performance now as well, with the Cortex cores.

    Now on the upside for Intel, these will be very neat systems and I expect that small media servers and the like will abound. Shame that they have such a fixation on mobile internet that the real opportunities could pass them by. All those MIDs look crap. The article says that even with 2x the power of the iPhone the interfaces are sluggish (yet are still way faster and better than Vista) ... there's no hope.
    Reply
  • defter - Thursday, January 10, 2008 - link

    [quote]Apple won't take over markets by waiting 3 years to get where they can be with ARM today.[/quote]

    Actually I don't understand why Apple has been mentioned something like 10 times in the article and many times in comments. They have maybe 4-6% of share in a smartphone market and 1-2% share in a whole cell phone market, what they do or not do isn't important.

    Of course cell phone manufacturers will not "wait" for Intel CPU and will continue to use ARM based CPUs in the near future, it would be silly to expect otherwise. It seems that currently, Menlow would be very suitable for EEE PC type of devices: it's cheap, has a low power consumption and takes a very little of space compared to current mobile CPUs.

    Then maybe in 3-4 years Menlow successors could be good enough for cell phone integrations. Remember: Intel has a lot of money and has a manufacturing process advantage, especially the latter is very important for power consumption. In the distant future we could see 22nm Menlow's successor competing against 32nm ARM CPUs, in that case ARM's power consumption advantage is not given...
    Reply
  • PandaBear - Wednesday, January 09, 2008 - link

    I don't understand why would Intel try to force x86 down a portable device that runs on Linux. For Windows I can understand but ARM (and almost every other architecture out there) can run Linux and in an embedded device you don't want to have the cost and power consumption much more than ARM.

    Given the fact that ARM based solution are so efficient power wise, and that there are already many ARM based ASIC out there, I don't understand why (other than politics) would Intel want to go the x86 road. They should develop a similar low power RISC core and hardware accelerated ASIC around it instead.

    What I sense is that they don't want x86 to go away when non PC take over the Internet browsing and mobile market takes off. So they give you something that is just good enough to hang on to rather than going to an all new platform like iPhone. Without a true Windows (with good usability) this won't help much.
    Reply

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